A Hirsute Situation.

March 08/Oct08

Latoya at Racialicious has a great post up about transitioning to nappy hair, which was inspired another good natural hair post by Tami.

December 26th will be six months since I did the “big chop” (I was too impatient to grow out the relaxed hair) and I found myself relating to Latoya’s post, even though I didn’t transition over time.

Backstory: I literally don’t remember not having relaxed hair. I have friends who exclaim that they could never go natural because they remember sitting between their mothers knees’ on “wash day” and having their heads yanked back and forth as their naps were hot combed, twisted, braided, and plaited into submission. I have no memories of that. My mother preempted the difficulty by relaxing my hair — and she either doesn’t remember how young I was, or she won’t admit it, because I still don’t know when she started.

I don’t have traumatic wash day memories. My hair was always long, healthy, and straight (when I was in high school, kids would ask if I had a weave), and when I discovered the flat iron in college, it was super-silky and bouncy, too. I thought the aching scalp and oozing sores from chemical burns were just those things we endured for beauty. And anyway, they’d scab over in a week. Nevermind that 4-5 weeks later, I’d be peering in the mirror at my fuzzy hairline, and sliding my fingers up into my hair, simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by the nappy roots.

I went to an HBCU for four years, in a city where nappiness is common and embraced, but I never once considered going natural, because I was proud of my shiny hair. I relaxed because I A) didn’t think I would be as attractive without long, straight hair, B) did it at home, so it cost literally a tenth of what other women paid for salon visits and C) didn’t have visible damage to my hair or hairline other than the occasional split end.

My decision to go natural this year wasn’t fraught with worry, it was a natural progression. I’d been growing it out, but it began to bore me, so I cut it about 4 inches. I roller-set on tiny rods to approximate natural hair (ha!). Then I joined a gym and was annoyed at the crimp my hair was putting on my workout. I refused to be one of those black women who wouldn’t work out because her hair would get messed up, so something had to go, and it wasn’t going to be my fitness. And I began to resent the idea that it was my attractiveness was tied up in my chemically altered hair. I was Samson.

I went home to California this summer, and my dad cut my hair. He was a little nervous as he did it, but when it was done, he rubbed my head and said I looked good with my inch-and-a-half of hair. It actually looked terrible for about three days, as I had to take scissors to it repeatedly and trim off the permed ends he’d missed. My mother didn’t like it, but only because it was short. Within a week, she decided it “suited” me. My sister, who had locs for about 10 years, and had recently cut them off herself, was full of admiration.

The people at work (mostly whites and Asians) ooh-ed and aah-ed over it when I came in for the first time post-BC. “So cool!” “So perfect for summer!” “I love it!” My black female colleague asked a bunch of questions because she had been thinking about going natural.

Most of my friends and associates had the good sense to keep their opinions to themselves if they didn’t like it. Some black men seem to take a proprietary view of black womens’ hair, and I had male friends who told me they’d have to “see it in person” first to decide if it was okay. I rolled my eyes and kept it moving. Shortly before the big chop, I’d stopped seeing a guy for several reasons, one of which being his skepticism when I asked him what he thought of me cutting off the perm; but another close friend, who has slowly developed into something more, expressed pleasure at my cropped hair — he was happy that he could touch it, since most relaxed/weaved women he knew didn’t want hands anywhere near their heads.

As the months wore on, and my hair developed into its pattern of tight curls and coils, I realized I wasn’t getting nearly the volume of negativity I had expected. Only one black woman (with relaxed hair) at my company has made a comment that rubbed me the wrong way. I was telling her how much easier my hair was now, and she said, sort of offhand: “I guess we can’t have hair that’s both pretty and convenient, can we?” And then she giggled.

Toward the end of her post, Latoya writes:

But after I transitioned, I didn’t forget. I didn’t forget how shitty it felt to have other blacks use my hair as a litmus test for my personal politics or beliefs, or how annoyed I got with the preaching of the newly converted. I hated hearing about black women having an ingrained slave mentality when for many of us, we just adapted to the way the world views beauty. It was hard enough finding a stylist I liked doing relaxed hair – you say natural stylist and it’s like you’re trying to find the password to a members only club.

And I absolutely hated the implication that everyone, without exception, will find their hair to be fabulous and flawless and will never want to straighten their hair again. I talked to a great many people while going through the various stages of the transition and spoke to women who had been natural their whole lives, who had transitioned like I had, who kept a close crop, who went from wigs to natural and back again, those who decided to stop twisting and just lock it up, and women who had done the natural thing but realized that they preferred the relaxer.

And the only thing that remained constant was that these women were happiest doing what they wanted to do.

While I do encourage my relaxed friends to consider dumping the perm (usually when they’re complaining about maintenance and/or hair loss), I abhor the nappy acolytes who insist that the 75% of black women who relax are wearing visible shackles. For some women, it is just hair. For some, there is a genuine fear of the new growth that sprouts from the scalp. Most, I’d say, are between the two poles. And of course, black women don’t hold the patent on hair issues. My post was also inspired by one I saw on Jezebel about how much all men “hate” short hair. And one site I frequent, naturallycurly.com, has curlies/nappies of all races supporting each other in a culture where long, straight hair is most desirable.

I know this much is true: although I look at pictures of my old hair and find myself missing the length and shine, I’ll never relax my hair again. Having a choice, when once, I thought my only choice was a relaxer, is empowering. Knowing I can go back to the perm, and choosing not to makes me happier than bone-straight hair ever did.

Every aesthetic choice a woman makes is critiqued, but few choices are put under the microscope the way hair choices are. I suspect it’s because hair is so easy to change in dramatic ways. From ever blonder newscasters to Tyra’s and B’s lace front wigs, women continually make adjustments to their hair to become more attractive or simply to fit in. But there is a balance to be found between styling hair to express individuality, and styling hair to hide it.


The composite image is of me in March and October of 2008, respectively.

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11 thoughts on “A Hirsute Situation.

  1. SDot December 18, 2008 at 8:44 pm Reply

    I just recently decided to grow out my relaxer for various reasons–mostly financial and the fact that my hairdressers were basically kiddie-perming me and charging regular relaxer prices, and even though I know I look good in short hair (having tried a short crop when I had a relaxer) I think that I will continue to keep straightening it with a flat iron. I have friends with natural, big fluffy Afros, friends who wear weave down their backs and friends with relaxers who do various cuts, etc. Even had a girlfriend who went bald a la Erykah Badu. But I think for me, straight hair is attractive and flattering and easier for me to deal with. I also take good care of it in between salon visits, so I don’t really deal with all that breakage and hair loss that plagues women with more sensitive hair. I do agree that black women shouldn’t be judged for wearing their hair however it is most flattering and convenient for them. We are not our hair. I say treat it like another womanly accessory. Play it up however you want. Just take care of it, no matter what state it’s in!

  2. aisha December 19, 2008 at 7:25 am Reply

    This post sums up how I feel about the hair situation, especially being a Los Angeles native where the straight hair industry was in full effect. I too laugh at the people who treat me like a Queen one day and question my commitment to the race if I flat iron it the next day. The only thing I would add is that I hear people who want to go natural start to “look up” to me. Asking lots of questions and everything. The only hitch is the curl definition question… “how do you get it to curl like that?” . I want people to love the hair God gave them and not struggle with what they don’t have. I’d rather people stick with their perm than force their hair into something it’s not. Lastly the fact that there are so many hair message boards says a lot about women and beauty.

  3. shani-o December 19, 2008 at 8:21 am Reply

    Sdot- Exactly. If you know and take care of your hair, it’s all good. I’m terrified of flat ironing my hair because I don’t want any heat damage to happen to my curls, but I also know that my hair isn’t as easily straightened as my sister’s hair, so my choice to avoid heat is just that — a choice for me.

    Aisha- you’re right. The curl definition kills me, too. And that goes hand-in-hand with ‘natural hair is unmanageable.’ Which it isn’t, if you aren’t trying to make it do things it won’t. But myths about styling is another post. 🙂

  4. G.D. December 19, 2008 at 10:18 am Reply

    i just want to thank you for avoiding calling this post…”I Am Not…”

  5. glory December 19, 2008 at 11:04 am Reply

    You are pretty and your hair looks good on you. I think our hair choices have been made too political. It took me years to shake off the worry over wearing straight hair to the poetry venue or fuzzy hair to the office. Three years ago, I wrote a blog about being unapologetic for relaxing my hair. (Methinks that despite the theme of that blog post, I protested too much.) Ironically, I haven’t relaxed my hair since. I like the versatility I have without the chemical – I can go from straight to wavy or curly and back in no time. But I’m not ashamed of having used the chemical. I feel free to make my hair choices without guilt now. I wish more people felt that way.

    I am ashamed for women who have no desire to know or embrace an understanding and familiarity with their own hair, saying things like, “I can’t do nothing with this,” as if their hair is a burden, and they have to pay a professional to tame their unruly naps. That is such a bad, hateful attitude. Professional styling, personal styling, creamy crack, natural – it’s all a choice.

  6. rakia December 19, 2008 at 12:40 pm Reply

    I went natural nine years ago. Cut it all of. Mom told me I looked like a lesbian, but I didn’t care. I really liked it; it felt nice to run my hand along my head. I’d been so looking forward to going natural that I could barely contain my excitement, and I eagerly showed my dome to anybody who I didn’t think caught it the first time I walked by.

    Mind you, this was in Philly, which has a really big community of sistas with natural hair. Even most dudes there wear full beards.

    Anyway, I’ve really enjoyed having my hair natural. But lately, I’ve been itching for something new. Something short and sassy, ala Rihanna. Yes, I’d be the billionth chick with that cut, but it’s so freakin’ hot! I saw a girl on the elevator this morning with a similar style. She was rockin’ the hell out of it.

    The benefit to having natural hair is that your hair is (usually) healthier. And if you wanna rock it straight, you can press it. But for the more complicated styles like Rihanna, there’s no way to get that cut and go back and forth between straight and natural hair. If anyone knows differently, speak up. ‘Cause I’m reeeeeeally tempted to get chopping.

  7. kaya December 19, 2008 at 3:23 pm Reply

    i agree with the author and aisha. when i went natural the most annoying questions came from black people. especially strangers! or black women who would see me and comment “i want to go natural but GIRL I JUST CAN’T DO IT!!!!” i hate the perception of hair=politics (even though i think this is more often true than not but i won’t go there).
    i also hate that i tried to put a “texturizer” in my hair last week and ended up perming the front. now i have naps in the back and straights in the fronts. i’ve been wearing a ponytail all week! just like rakia, i need some help!

  8. shani-o December 19, 2008 at 10:08 pm Reply

    Glory- Thanks. About 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post about the only semi-traumatic perming experience I had (I forgot about it til now–prob blocked it out) in which I lost a patch of hair in the back of my head, and in that post I think I made some musings on the nature of chemically relaxing hair, but I still (STILL!) didn’t consider going natural. I defended the perm as well.

    Rakia- I have a friend who usually presses her natural hair, and she got a pretty dramatic cut but it still works curly. But because she presses constantly, her curls aren’t as tight, so your mileage may vary.

    Kaya- Oh no! Texturizers are tricky, especially if, like, me, you already have different textures on different parts of your head. The top/front of mine is wavy-straight, so it wouldn’t work evenly all around. Is your hair long? I’d suggest chopping it (tho maybe not in this weather), or doing twists and braids to blend the textures until it grows out some.

  9. […] at PostBourgie, slb’s written about the Emmy-winning Tyra show. And I’ve written about nappy hair. So, when the Tyra show does an episode on nappy hair, it’s only natural that we post about […]

  10. Kelley October 7, 2009 at 11:29 am Reply

    Thank you for the inspiration. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my hair for years – well, for my whole life, really. I have the horror story memories of the tangles and heat combs before my mom started relaxing my hair (I was 7). And for the past 20 years I’ve been getting it relaxed. Like you, I’ve prided myself on the quality of my hair, since a lot of black women have trouble growing their hair very long (mine is well past my shoulders). But after my most recent experience with some pretty bad chemical burns, right around the crown of my face, I have a hard time seeing how I will ever want to get another perm again.

    A classmate of mine went natural several years ago and she has sung the praises of her experience to me. It’s encouraging, but at the same time scary. But it all boils down to: do I want to feel better, or do I want to look a certain way? Who knows? Maybe I will even be able to grow my hair to a substantial length, since I’m half white, so my hair may not be TOO nappy under all that perm!

    Anyway, thanks again. I really needed to read this today. You look amazing with your natural curls. 🙂

  11. […] My only regret is that I wish I’d always had access to my natural hair, instead of being relaxed since before I can remember and spending years chasing the ‘white girl […]

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